The oil-and-gas industry has faced a barrage of lawsuits in recent years from cities, counties and states across the U.S. seeking damages for the costs they say they have incurred as a result of climate change.
Some lawyers are going after big oil firms for securities fraud, saying they knew for decades that climate change posed a material risk to their businesses but failed to fully disclose the danger to investors. Other lawyers are arguing that extracting and selling oil and gas is a public nuisance because it leads to greenhouse-gas emissions, which in turn results in the harmful impacts of climate change.
No suit has been successful yet, and some have been thrown out in federal court. But a handful have been allowed to move forward.
Those who believe the oil-and-gas industry bears some financial responsibility for the damage caused by climate change say that in much the same way that tobacco firms hid the dangers of smoking from consumers, fossil-fuel companies foresaw the harm their products would cause yet did nothing to avert it or warn the public.
Opponents reject that comparison, saying fossil fuels, unlike tobacco, are essential and used by everyone. Reducing emissions isn’t a matter for the courts, they contend, but an issue of public policy.
Justin Gundlach, an attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, argues that fossil-fuel companies should be held accountable for their damaging contributions to climate change.
Linda Kelly, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at the National Association of Manufacturers, makes the case against that.
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